Saturday, July 11, 2009

Time for NASA to dream big again

By Robert Weiner and Zoe Pagonis
The Baltimore Sun - July 9

NASA recently snatched headlines with the news of Charles Bolden's nomination as NASA's new administrator and the Atlantis shuttle crew's final upgrade of the Hubble telescope. Next, there will be numerous TV documentaries as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of man's first moon landing on July 20.

Yet the news for NASA now is a pale comparison to 1969, when two Americans first stepped on the moon.

Forty years later, we have to ask: What happened to man and woman on Mars and Venus? By now we thought we'd even be on the outer reaches of the solar system, to Pluto. Yet, as assuredly as Pluto has since become a nonplanet, after a few repeat moon missions through 1972, we stopped leaving Earth.

In August 1969, two weeks after the historic moon walk, rocket scientist and NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Director Wernher von Braun presented a comprehensive plan for human travel to Mars. He wrote a detailed book on the mission's potential years earlier, in 1951 and '52. His plan was never adopted.

At this point, we'll take returning to the moon. Or are we (rightfully) too embarrassed just to repeat that? Hubble is nice, even spectacular. The photos are amazing - but not in the same breath as the earth-shattering significance of man on other planets. The pilot of Apollo 11 and second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, agrees. He said recently on "Instead of a steppingstone to Mars, NASA's current lunar plan is a detour."

The Russians, in partnership with the European Space Agency, have a plan. At the end of March, they launched Mars 500, a simulation of the effects of Mars' atmosphere on humans. Shades of 1957. Then, with their bold move, as they placed Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin in orbit, the Russians jumped a light-year ahead of the U.S. in the space race.

It took us a decade to catch up. Hopefully, we won't have to repeat this - still a sore point. We need a get-there mentality with a time frame.

President Barack Obama recently told the Atlantis astronauts, "It is a high priority of mine to restore that sense of wonder that space can provide." Returning to the moon is no longer wonder. We already did that; the wonder is gone.

Most of us are not scientists, but that's the point. NASA executes the dream for all of us - the outreach to the beyond we know is there.

When our supply of everything from oil to food to water is in peril, shouldn't we be exploring the virtually limitless bounds of other planets? As we seek cures to illnesses from new earthly frontiers like stem cells, are there elements and compounds on other planets that might be useful beyond our wildest dreams? Shouldn't we see what's out there?

Many argue that a mission to Mars would cost beyond NASA's annual budget of $18.7 billion. NASA estimates the cost of a manned trip to Mars at $100 billion; yet Apollo 11 cost $150 billion. There were individuals in 1969 who protested its funding. What would have happened if we hadn't had the right stuff and backed off? By the way, we spend $150 billion a year (a trillion so far) in Iraq only to finally have the realization that al-Qaida is concentrated in Afghanistan.

Claiming that close-in shuttle missions and robots afar are all we can do is no longer acceptable. Man on the moon was the most profound scientific achievement of our lifetimes because of all it symbolized in the conquering of human knowledge gaps - and it happened too long ago.

It's time for "change" to reverse NASA satisfaction with the mundane, and replace it with the other-worldly - so that potentially all mankind can benefit.

Robert Weiner is a former spokesman for the Clinton White House and the House Government Operations Committee. Zoe Pagonis is a policy analyst at Robert Weiner Associates. This article originally appeared in the Orlando Sentinel.

Copyright © 2009, The Baltimore Sun

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